By Cullen Hendrix for Denver Dialogues.
Our community lost a beloved, infuriating, and wonderful person, Will Moore, last week. Others have eulogized him and expressed their loss in ways far more profound than I ever could. It pains me that I know I’m leaving out so many impassioned remembrances because they are proliferating so rapidly.
If there is a silver lining to this dark, dark cloud, it is that Will’s death is occasioning a deep, discipline-wide discussion of mental health. Brave colleagues have broken the taboo of talking about their struggles with depression and social anxiety. This will make it more acceptable for other coping “success stories” – those who have struggled with mental health issues but who have still managed to develop respected publication records and disciplinary status – more comfortable talking about their issues. I hope it will help create an environment in which our colleagues and students can feel less like they are facing these issues alone. Being more honest and open about these struggles and issues will be a positive change for our community.
But let’s be equally, unflinchingly honest about what won’t change – or at least what won’t change unless we act collectively to create space for a healthier disciplinary orientation.
We will still apportion status, money, and coveted professorships on the basis of observable output, scholarly reputation, and “fit”. Mental health issues can affect all three. Most obviously, mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder can directly affect work productivity and creativity through loss of interest, loss of energy, and loss of ability to concentrate. But depression can also result in withdrawing from relationships with friends and colleagues. Social anxiety disorders, issues with reading social cues, and avoidant behavior can affect perceptions of the social aspects of “fit” – does the person pass the “someone I’d like to have lunch/coffee/a drink with” test – as can some of the coping mechanisms, like overdrinking in social situations, some may develop to try and fit in.
And because we will still apportion status, money, and coveted professorships this way, many people struggling with mental health issues will still be marginalized. And we will continue to do other things that augur against our collective mental health.
We will still perpetuate the cult of the monomaniacal. We will still tell graduate students not to appear too into their pastimes and personal lives, lest the discipline conclude they are unserious.
We will still send signals that you’re not doing things right pre-tenure unless your office light is still on at 9 PM. On a Friday.
We will still venerate overextension.
We will still tell graduate students who aren’t interested in taking a 4/4 teaching load far from home and family to get a foothold in the discipline they are not committed enough to the academic enterprise. And don’t worry – if you do take it, you’ll be able to “move up” in a few years.
We will still tell young people they should spend months and years living apart from their loved ones – spouses and children included – in order to take advantage of career opportunities. Given the rising prevalence of dual-academic career couples but the idiosyncratic and uneven way universities address these dual-career couples, we will still tell them that some of their spouses matter and some of them don’t.
We will, individually, continue to view these things as harmful and irrational. And we will forget all of these issues when we look at a dizzying pile of applications for our next tenure-track position and focus on the two or three candidates that have been most successful at navigating all of these incentives we’ve created.
Because we are social scientists, we know these perverse incentives can persist for a long, long time even if we all recognize they are irrational and destructive. We face a classic collective action problem: we would all benefit from a saner, more reasonable set of professional incentives, but unless we all decide this is the case and act accordingly, we dare not step off the established path of overwork, overcommitment, and under-regard for self-care and mental health. If we do, we fall behind our peers.
It’s my sincere hope that we can be better and kinder to ourselves and others. Maybe this is how and where we start. But I fear that as time dulls the shock and pain we will slip back into our established habits and routines. The good (and sad) news is we’ll likely be too busy to reflect on it too much.